Napoleon, Operational Art, and the Jena Campaign
David G. Chandler
Napoleon would have had no difficulty in understanding and applying the modern concept of operational art. Napoleon’s philosophy of war was simple and to the point. It ensured the predominance of the political aim to achieve the “continuation of policy by other means.” He ensured an objective setting from the political perspective and then set the military aim. As early as 1787 we find the young General Bonaparte professing this conviction: “There are in Europe today many good generals, but they see too many things at once. I see only one thing, namely the enemy’s main body. I strive to crush it, confident that secondary matters will then settle themselves.”1 Here lies the heart, the central theme, of Napoleon’s concept of warfare: the Blitzkrieg attack aimed at the main repository of the enemy, the center of gravity, his army. Such is the kernel of Napoleon’s understanding of what we today term operational art.
To the end of his days Napoleon denied he had operated according to any hard and fast set of precepts or principles. Between 1796 and 1809, he practiced warfare’s apparently limitless variation and flexibility. Two phrases require elucidation. First, “a careful balancing of means and ends, efforts and obstacles”2 brings out the true economy of force, the careful allocation of available military and political power to the achievement of the politico-military aim. It further connotes the need to avoid keeping large reserves in pointless inactivity to the rear and, equally important, employing large forces to achieve minor, secondary objectives. It calls for the correct timing of the employment of sufficient force and above all requires the achievement of a carefully calculated balance at all stages of military operations between ends and means, between inevitably conflicting priorities for the employment of strictly finite resources. The object of everything at the levels of both strategy and operational art is the destruction of the enemy’s state of equilibrium, ideally by means of psychological domination before the decisive battle physically opens.
Second, the need “to make war a real science.” By real, Napoleon meant living and effective. Warfare must be conducted in a realistic, practical, and decisive fashion. There is no place for posturing or “phoney-war” attitudes - chessboard maneuvers designed to avoid a major battle at all costs. The attritional stage, battle, is only intended as preparation
for the third, or mobile stage, which leads to the coup de grâce. But of course it must be appreciated that Napoleon was head of state as well as supreme military commander in the field. Thus, he decided policy at the strategic level as well as implemented its military objectives at the operational level. His key subordinates, the commanders of corps d’armée, the vital building blocks of Napoleonic warfare, were rarely if ever permitted to indulge in free interpretation of their orders. In this fact lay both the strength and weakness of Napoleon’s conduct of war. Highly motivated and closely controlled marshals of the empire were redoubtable instruments in achieving victory at the operational and tactical levels. Left on their own or divided by many hundreds of miles from their master, the emperor, the results could be (and frequently were) rampant indecision, rivalry, indiscipline - and failure. Any study of the campaigns in Spain and Portugal, particularly from 1812 when Napoleon was 2,000 miles away in Russia or in 1813 deep in central Germany, will bear this out. Thus, the supreme centralization of Napoleonic warfare had serious potential weakness as well as important strengths. But when Napoleon was present and controlling a manageable force by the lights of the time - say, some 250,000 men (as in 1805, 1806, or 1809) - there were few things he was incapable of achieving. The military concepts flowed smoothly into the political goals that the emperor could rapidly adjust.
Napoleon had a masterly grasp of military geography. He would tax his librarian for books on historical, descriptive, geographical, and topical aspects of Europe. He appreciated the political and geographical realities of each of the regions in Europe. He does not, however, appear to have appreciated the overall immensity of the physical problems presented by the campaigns in the Iberian Peninsula, “where small armies are swallowed up and large armies starve,”3 or by the expanse of Russia.
For Napoleon, the concept of a successful campaign connoted one that achieved its real object for the most economical expenditure in terms of time and resources. The conquest and occupation of terrain was secondary in importance. Considerations of time spent or wasted were far more significant. “The loss of time is irreparable in war.” “Strategy is the art of making use of time and space. I am less chary of the latter than the former; space we can recover, time never.” “I may lose a battle, but I shall never lose a minute.” “Time is the great element between weight and force.”4
The proper use of available time usually called for speed and accuracy of movement by large bodies of troops, all of them integrated and synchronized according to the requirement of a campaign plan.
Napoleon commanded by means of the Imperial Headquarters (le grand quartier-général, or GQG). This organization was not only the headquarters for the army in the field, but it also comprised virtually the entire government of France. It was divided into the military component, headed by a chief of staff (under Berthier) who headed a general staff, an
administrative headquarters (headed by the intendant, Count Daru), and a personal staff, including troubleshooting general officers. The tasks of the staff on campaign were fourfold. First, it supervised and controlled the movements of large bodies of men, equipment, and convoys, moving in two directions: toward the front and toward the rear. Second, it acquired and evaluated intelligence from the entire theater of war. Third, it controlled all military activity on up to a seventy-mile front. And fourth, it transmitted and received reports and orders over a large area, thus maintaining the critically important flow of information, which alone made possible “the ever shifting kaleidoscope of moves and intentions.”5
Napoleon on campaign often operated with the aid of his petit quartier-général (or battle headquarters), which accompanied him on his incessant daily tours of inspection, for the emperor was a staunch believer in “seeing and being seen.” This group usually comprised Berthier, Caulaincourt, the marshal-of-the-day on headquarters duty, a pair of aides-de-camp selected by roster, four orderly officers, one page of the household entrusted with Napoleon’s telescope, the bodyguard Roustam, an imperial groom, an officer-interpreter and a soldier of the escort carrying the portfolio of maps. Four squadrons of Guard Cavalry formed the escort commanded by a general, to which was added on days of battle a section of artillerie volante (portable artillery, which customarily consisted of four guns) that deployed themselves whenever the entourage halted to command all four approaches to the main group. Normally Napoleon rode carefully trained, quiet Arab horses, but for longer distances he would transfer to his calèche or his large post-chaise (organized as a mobile office).
His campaign routine was designed to suit the workings of the staff system, and to pack as much as was possible into a 24-hour period. Each evening Napoleon would retire to sleep at 2000 and rise at midnight. In his office tent, he would find abstracts prepared by Berthier of the latest reports from the corps commanders sent the previous evening. After dictating any necessary orders, the emperor would retire for another hour or two of sleep. By 0600 he would have dressed and breakfasted. A first conference with Bacler d’Albe in the map office would be followed by important interviews. Returning to his desk, he would find the reports abrégé from outlying formations and the expanded and finally prepared orders of earlier that morning awaiting his signature. Any he disapproved he flung on the floor or, if of particularly grave importance, put carefully to one side with the remark: “Until tomorrow; of night brings counsel.”6 More dictation and interviews followed, and by 1000 the latest batch of fair-written orders would be ready for final approval and dispatch.
Napoleon would next call for his horse and set off with the petit quartier-général to inspect troops, award the occasional unexpected medal to a delighted veteran at the roadside, visit subordinates and (less popularly) their headquarters’ staffs, and, when necessary, conduct re-
connaissance often at considerable personal risk, to the anxiety of his officers and escort. By 1500 or 1600 he would be back at main GQG (which would probably have moved forward to a new location during his absence - he detested disorder and always tried to avoid the bustle of packing and unpacking) to hold a second map-tent conference with d’Albe, consider any recent messages, and then dictate more orders and grant further interviews. Meals were haphazardly taken and rarely lasted more than twenty minutes. An hour’s relaxation might follow at 1900, involving reminiscing over old battles with intimates or the occasional card game that the emperor invariably won by fair means or foul - such was the understanding. A final conference with the indispensable d’Albe and possibly Berthier, and the emperor’s eighteen-hour day was over. He would enter his sleeping tent, Roustam would place himself across the doorway, while the aides-de-camp and secretary on duty settled down in the anteroom-tent for, they hoped, a few hours of relative rest; and a silence zone of 100 meters would come into effect around the sleeping genius.
Serving Napoleon was no sinecure. His work capacity appeared limitless and he expected the same dedication from all around him. Once around 1812 Berthier was found in tears: “I am being killed by hard work; a mere private soldier is happier than I.”7 The emperor could fly into sudden rage and strike out with his riding crop at any within range; but his ability to snatch at will occasional short sleep at quiet moments of the day (even amidst the din of battle, as at Wagram in 1809) helped him recharge his mental and physical energies.
Napoleon also operated a completely separate information gleaning and overseeing system. Attached to his person rather than to the staff were up to a dozen adjutants-général - hand-picked young colonels who were given temporary rank of général de brigade or (more rarely) général de division, none aged over forty, who were used as his “eyes and ears” and as “trouble shooters.” They would be expected to undertake everything from boiling an egg to commanding a critical attack and required tact as well as stamina. Each of these trusted aides had a couple of personal assistants. They could also call upon the dozen officers d’ordonnance - subalterns and captains under twenty-four years of age, noted for their intelligence, courage, and absolute devotion to the emperor, many being engineers and gunners (selected in later years from the annual classes emerging from L’École Polytechnique de Paris) - who were often entrusted with carrying Napoleon’s own messages.
The staff ’s ability to effect the conduct of warfare at operational level was in large measure determined by Berthier’s ceaseless supervision and urging, and by the extension of the staff system to the levels of corps d’armée and to the divisions of infantry and cavalry they contained. Each corps had a miniaturized form of the GQG. Its commander would have
an adjutant-général (or senior adviser) - a chief of staff - up to eight aides-de-camp for intelligence gathering, five officers of the general staff (one for each section under a coordinator), and perhaps half-a-dozen spare officers - perhaps two dozen officers in all, supplemented by up to twelve more specialists - logisticians, convoy directors, a senior surgeon, and two representatives from Daru’s administrative staff. Lower down the chain of command came the divisional staffs, once again reflecting the main branches of the GQG, and once again standardized, containing eleven officers. All in all, this was a logical if in some ways over-exclusive and top-heavy system, but it is surprising to note that there was no formal training for staff officers, nothing resembling a staff college. Staff officers were carefully selected by commanding generals from experienced subordinates whom they could trust, and below GQG level (where most appointments except the most junior were permanent) officers rotated between line and staff.
Napoleon was extremely thorough in his planning, leaving as little as possible to chance. He researched possible future campaigns by voracious reading to build up a clear picture and estimation of his opponent. “I am accustomed to thinking out what I shall do three or four months in advance, and I base my calculations on the worst conceivable situations.”8 This statement reveals the emperor’s thoroughness - but he was not tied to a master plan. He was convinced that any plan needed many branches or alternative courses of action built into it, so as to be adaptable to actual circumstances. To that extent there is validity in his other claim: “one engages, then one sees.” But his normal rule is far more methodical in tone: “Nothing is attained in war except by calculation. During a campaign whatever is not profoundly considered in all its detail is without result. Every enterprise should be conducted according to a system; chance alone can never bring success.”9
At the same time Napoleon never underestimated the part sheer chance played in the prosecution of war. It was an important “unknown factor” that had to be placed almost algebraically within his calculations. Careful foresight could reduce the detrimental effects of chance, and every plan included a margin of time available for making good any damage so caused or for exploiting any unforeseen windfall. On campaign or in battle, Napoleon’s operational mind was continually assessing and reassessing the odds:
A major purpose of seeking accurate intelligence in war is to reduce the unknown to manageable proportions. Napoleon used embassies at the strategic level. He used cavalry and spies at the operational level. He sought to use cavalry not only to gather intelligence but also to deceive an opponent as to his own strength and intentions. Napoleon served as his own intelligence evaluator, cutting out intermediate intelligence tiers - and this could lead to rapid decision-making and orders issued.11
The reverse side of achieving surprise and good intelligence is the ensuring of security for one’s own operations, including the deception of the foe. Napoleon was a past master at concealing his own strength and intention from the enemy. Long before a campaign opened a security curtain would be lowered. The press was ruthlessly controlled and “tuned” to produce only the information - more often disinformation - that the Emperor wished the foe to comprehend. Weeks before a major military movement the frontiers would be closed to foreigners and the surveillance by Fouché’s secret police redoubled. At the same time elaborate deception schemes would be implemented to create apparent military threats in areas where none in fact existed.
Once a military movement had begun, a dense mobile screen of light cavalry and dragoons would deny the enemy’s probing patrols any inkling of what lay behind. Cavalry screens would equally be employed in wholly irrelevant areas to increase the bewilderment of the enemy. They also would protect the French line of communication snaking back to the place de campagne (operational base) or the intermediate centres des opérations, because Napoleon believed in keeping his links to his supply and munitions dumps, hospitals, and the like as short as possible. Napoleon frequently changed the composition of major formations in mid-campaign for operational or administrative reasons, inevitably increasing the confusion of the enemy’s intelligence services as they strove to keep abreast of developments.
One of the most successful ways of achieving surprise in war is using speed to confound enemy intelligence and to present his command, control, communications, and intelligence (C3I) functions with either fait accomplis or with the discouraging need to be forever adjusting to hostile initiatives. This would induce paralysis in decision-making and lead to psychological collapse. Napoleon was highly adept at inducing this state of affairs.
Napoleon’s armies most certainly could move fast. In the First Italian Campaign of 1796, General Fiorella marched Augereau’s division from the siege lines before Mantua to Castiglione - a matter of fifty miles - in thirty-six hours. Early the next year, Masséna force-marched his division from Verona (where it had been in action) on 13 January to join General Bonaparte at Rivoli. He fought a day-long battle there (the fourteenth), was put back on the road to Mantua that evening, and reached La Favor-
ita on its outskirts on the sixteenth - thus ending up with having fought three actions and covered fifty-four miles of ground in just 120 hours. This was no mean feat. In 1805 Napoleon moved 210,000 men from the Rhine to the Danube around Donauwörth in between eleven and twenty-five days, the more outlying formations in the great wheel across central Germany having to cover all of 250 miles. Soult’s IV Corps, for example, marched 275 miles between September 24 and October 16 in that operation. Between November 30 and the early hours of December 2, 1805, Davout drove Friant’s division of III Corps over 140 kilometers in little over forty-eight hours, thirty-five of them spent on the road. Similar examples of sustained marching are to be found as late as 1814. Well indeed might Napoleon declare that “Marches are war,” and his men wryly comment that “the Emperor has discovered a new way of making war; he makes use of our legs instead of our arms!”12 Well might the emperor claim that he was more chary of losing time than space. But in fact he wrung the utmost out of both.
The basic building block for operational utilization was the corps d’armée. It was a self-contained fighting formation of infantry, cavalry, and artillery, together with supply and medical services, the whole controlled by a carefully designed staff of from 25,000 to 30,000 men. The basic calculation was that a corps d’armée could fight alone for up to twenty-four hours before having to be reinforced by neighboring formations moving up to its aid. Writing to his stepson, Eugène Beauharnais,Viceroy of Italy, on 7 June 1809, the emperor discussed this feature:
This requirement formed one basis for the operational “square battalion” formation made up of a number of army corps acting like the tentacles of an octopus. The composition of an individual corps was rarely a fixed matter but fluctuated considerably during a campaign or even on the eve of battle, because Napoleon frequently made alterations to confuse the enemy or to meet some special requirements. This type of flexibility obviously conferred important operational advantage.
There was another important implication in this relative invulnerability of a major French formation for up to a day’s duration. This was that the corps could be routed through enemy countryside along its own axis of advance. This capacity could often increase both the overall speed of advance and general flexibility of operational employment. In short, it gave simultaneity to the operational advance of the corps. The ultimate aim of all this carefully coordinated activity was to produce the greatest number of troops on the battlefield, which could decide the outcome of
the campaign. It was axiomatic for Napoleon to mass as many bayonets and sabers on the battlefield as possible. But dispersal before battle was as important as concentration in battle. On the eve of a major engagement it was more important that troops should be assembled than concentrated. By assembly, Napoleon understood the placing of his formations within close-support marching distance, not shoulder to shoulder on the battle line. It was vital to have sufficient troops disengaged to provide an enveloping or outflanking force. Equally, it was necessary to have sufficiently elastic disposition to be able to meet any unforeseen threat or development (the question of reserves figured large in this consideration). And third, the interests of field security and concealment of French intentions for as long as possible had to be taken into account. From these principles derives the true meaning of the dictum: “The army must be kept assembled and the greatest possible force concentrated on the field of battle.”14
Much of the success of Napoleon’s operational concepts lay in his creation of a web of carefully positioned formations. At the outset of a campaign, the net was widely spread; it almost resembled a cordon. Thus, for example, in the Jena campaign in October 1806, Napoleon’s frontage was reduced from the initial 200 to just 45 kilometers for the passage of the problematical Thüringer Wald. Once that obstacle had been successfully negotiated, the front expanded again to 60 kilometers for the northward advance toward Leipzig. Then the crash concentration of all the forces west in the direction of Weimar was ordered when “the veil [of uncertainty] was torn” and the elusive Prussian Army was discovered beyond the River Saale. This broad base of Napoleonic operational deployment was not allowed to contradict the principle of “concentration.” The enemy was steadily enveloped in the weaving tentacles, and then finally enmeshed by the last-minute “pounce” achieved by the ordering of a forced march (up to twenty-two miles), largely under cover of darkness. In this way Napoleon fused maneuver with battle, and thereafter, with pursuit, thereby making probably his greatest original contribution to the art and science of war, at least at the operational level. Napoleon succeeded more than any other soldier did before his time in fusing marching, fighting, and pursuit into one continuous and remorseless process. The development of the campaign of 1806 against Prussia is the model example.
To facilitate this process the emperor laid down a series of different operational alignments for his corps d’armée. These included the deployment of his major formations in a wedge-shaped disposition, or in echelon (with one flank refused), or with one flank en potence - loosely akin to Frederick the Great’s “oblique order” - according to circumstances and the requirements of the overall general plan. But his most favored formation was le bataillon carré (the battalion of square). By this the army corps were disposed in a diamond-shaped rectangular formation, with an advance guard preceded by the cavalry screen in the presumed direction
of the main enemy army, a right and a left wing, in the center the GQG, and in rear a reserve. Each component might be made up of one or more corps. It was critically important that no single corps should be more than one day’s marching distance from at least one (better two) neighboring formations; and ideally the entire army should be so placed as to be able to achieve a crash concentration at the threatened or decisive point within the space of forty-eight to seventy-two hours. The great advantage conferred by le bataillon carré was that it permitted the emperor to take greater risks than a more formal deployment would permit, thus retaining the vital initiative by the sheer boldness of his offensive. For, given the high mobility rate, the logistical self-sufficiency, and the ability to fight alone for up to twenty-four hours (if necessary) of each individual corps, Napoleon was provided with the highest possible level of operational flexibility. He could advance - as in October 1806 - without any clear knowledge as to where the enemy main body was situated and adjust his line of attack according to circumstances. Self-sufficiency and mutual support were the keys to success.
No better example of Napoleon’s applying his principles of operational art can be found than the campaign he waged in central Europe against Prussia in late 1806. The military events that took place during the thirty-three days of active campaigning between 8 October 1806 (when French troops first entered Saxony) and 10 November (which saw Mortier’s occupation of Hamburg) constitute a military masterpiece of the first order, and merit the most careful study. At the outset, however, two general observations must be made. However brilliant Napoleon’s military achievement in 1806, it must be stressed that in one important political respect, the French campaign failed to achieve its purpose. For although Napoleon accomplished the strategic design by the defeat of Prussia, Jena-Auerstädt and the brilliant followup failed to achieve a favorable political pacification. Second, even the military achievements of 1806 contain no less than six major Napoleonic errors and miscalculations of command, control, communications, and intelligence, which will be described and analyzed below. Thus, it was the inherent adaptability of Napoleon’s grasp of operational art that was arguably the most important (even, dare we suggest, the saving?) aspect of his performance. His mastery of the “alternative plan”15 was to prove essential to success. This may be termed the inherent flexibility in the Napoleonic application of operational art.
Without detailing the entire diplomatic and political background that led Prussia to war, the Napoleonic efforts to achieve the consolidation of his political position in Europe with the announcement of the creation of the French-oriented Confederation of the Rhine on 12 July, and on 6 August 1806 the final and irrevocable dissolution of the anachronistic Holy Roman Empire, there seemed to be no bounds to Napoleon’s ambi-
tion. The argument still rages whether Napoleon set out deliberately to provoke a war with Prussia. Not that weak-willed Frederick-William III and his Francophile minister Haugwitz together with “the Peace Party” at Potsdam might have found it impossible to accept the new condition; but it was wholly unacceptable to the king’s beautiful and strong-minded spouse, Queen Louise, who headed the war party at court that included the Gallophobic Hardenburg and two senior generals, the Duke of Brunswick and Prince Hohenlohe. The argument raged behind closed doors, and in the end the war party triumphed, but only, it is often claimed, after the strong-willed queen had persistently denied conjugal rights to her uxorious husband until he fell into line. In August 1807 the decision for war was at last taken in secret - and for once French diplomatic intelligence did not fully discover the secret for a full month.
Prussian Armies and War Plans
The Prussian Army of 1806 could place 171,000 troops into first-line formations (including 35,000 cavalry and 550 guns), supported by a further 83,000 men in garrison. Its reputation as the creation of the august Frederick still hung like an aura around its name. In fact, however, as Clausewitz remarked, “behind the fine facade all was mildewed.”16 As General Fuller has pronounced, “the Prussian Army was a museum piece.”17 Clinging to outdated concepts, ferocious discipline was imposed to achieve uniformity, which was deemed more important than inspiration. Rigid linear drills were regarded as de rigueur, and the precision was considered more important than speed or flexibility. The supply trains were enormous in extent, the army depended upon magazines and depots for food and munitions, and as a consequence a day’s march of twelve miles was considered the outside limit.
The cult of the past was carried to unreasonable lengths. The infantry were brave and well disciplined after the fashion of “walking muskets,” but their muskets were the worst in Europe, most of them being of the 1754 pattern. Formal tactics discouraged all thought of initiative. The Prussian cavalry was bold and dashing, as became the heirs of von Seydlitz, and exceptionally well mounted (the horse studs of Prussia were a major resource that France would not be slow to exploit after October), but they were highly conservative as to role and employment on campaign. The artillery was imposing in size but often badly handled. Morale - despite the setbacks sustained from Valmy onward in the War of the First Coalition - was exceedingly (but unrealistically) high. Yet the Prussian soldier would fight bravely and tenaciously - their Saxon comrades a little less so.
The worst attribute lay at staff level. Leadership was not on a par with that of the 1760s, and by 1806 had become entrusted to a junta of
septuagenarians. Under the king, whom nobody, least of all himself, regarded as a soldier, the chief command devolved on the Duke of Brunswick, 71 years of age. The senior royal adviser was Field Marshal von Mollendorf, aged 82 years. Blücher - regarded as unreliably youthful for senior command - was already 64, while Prince Hohenlohe and General Schmettau were striplings of 60. Had there been even a weak predecessor of the “Great General Staff ” of von Moltke the Elder and the mid nineteenth century, all might have been compensated for, but in 1806 there was not even an embryonic staff corps. Worse, there were no less than three chiefs of staff, General Phull and Colonels Scharnhorst and Massenbach. The Prussian Army of 1806 presents the nigh-perfect example of an army (and behind it a government and nation) putting all its faith in dimming memories of past achievements. In doing so, it was committing the cardinal errors of falling into complacency and purblind conservatism, whilst falling victim to persistent demands for retrenchment and economy.
In August 1806 the French had approximately 160,000 men and 300 guns in southern Germany, with half as many on the River Main and the Middle Rhine. These troops were probably the best in terms of experience that Napoleon ever commanded. Fresh from their two successes at Ulm and Austerlitz, the survivors were aware of their mettle - and that of their leaders. The infantry and artillery were particularly strong, although the cavalry was still capable of improvement. At the peak of their reputation, the French were led by the eighteen marshals created in May 1804 - Berthier, Soult, Davout, Lannes, Bernadotte, Augereau, Mortier, and the rest - whose average age was 36 years,18 the same as that of their incomparable leader. That of the Prussian high command, by contrast, was all of 60 years. If it came to war with Prussia it would be a case of youth and energy against supposedly superior experience. All in all, Napoleon’s army of 1806 was a finely geared and ruthlessly efficient war machine. It was, however, deployed over a wide area carrying out occupation duties. Placed in cantonments stretching from the River Main to Vienna, and south from the Danube to the approaches to the Alps, it might appear at first glance to be overextended, tempting a foe to attempt a surprise attack to defeat it in detail before concentration could be completed. The decisive battle might be expected, therefore, the Prussian generals considered, behind the Saale or Main.
On no other point than French overextension was the hydra-headed Prussian high command found to be in general agreement. Their uncertainties and rivalries provide an excellent example of the depths to which the planning side of operational art can be allowed to sink. Clearly, no concept of contingency planning existed. For a full month the complexities of military protocol were allowed to hold sway, and only in early September did anything like a Prussian order of battle begin to emerge.
Eventually, three field armies were organized. The first, under Brunswick, numbered 70,000 men drawn from the Berlin and Magdeburg districts to form between Leipzig and Naumburg. The second, commanded by Hohenlohe, initially 50,000 strong but ultimately 70,000 men following the forcible assimilation of the Saxon Army, drew up around Dresden. The third, under Generals Rüchel and Blücher, took post near Mühlhausen and Göttingen, respectively. Of their total pieces of artillery, served by 15,000 men, 300 were heavy and medium guns, the balance being regimental pieces. Such were the Prussian dispositions on 25 September.
As to how this force, imposing on paper, was best to be used became the subject of prolonged and often acrimonious debate. No less than five main plans emerged. Scharnhorst (Blücher’s chief of staff) put forward the most sensible scheme - to await the arrival of the tsar’s army already assembling under General Bennigsen on the River Bug. If necessary (especially if Napoleon struck first), space could be traded for time in a series of holding actions in the Thüringer Wald, along the Elbe, or even in extremity on the Oder. Nobody else came out in support of this suggestion, which several claimed would compromise the army’s honor, and it was therefore dropped. Second, the idea of awaiting Napoleon around Erfurt and Hof, taking up positions to outflank the Grand Armée, was mooted. This also was dropped as too defensive. Third, Brunswick pressed for the superficially attractive concept of moving a single, strong army through Erfurt toward Würzburg and thence on to threaten Stuttgart in the hope of catching the French in their cantonment areas, or if not to at least compromise their communications with France. The jealous Hohenlohe spoke strongly against this plan, advocating instead a more easterly move through Hof on Bamberg. The high command also ruled out this plan when it was realized that it would involve stringing out the three armies along a ninety-mile front, with only the smallest of reserves near Naumburg. The sinister (or incompetent) Massenbach put forward the wildest idea of all - an apparently pointless military parade by the Silesian Army (his own, naturally) through Hof to the Danube and thence back into Saxony. At last the king intervened in the wrangling, and imposed a fifth plan, involving the implementation of the main features of both Brunswick’s and Hohenlohe’s operational schemes - a compromise that pleased nobody.
This notwithstanding, the reams of preliminary orders had already been issued to implement the king’s compromise plan, when on 27 September the council of war suddenly reverted to the adoption of Brunswick’s original plan in total. The rusty cogs of the Prussian military machine agonizingly went into reverse as further quires of contradictory orders were rushed to the regiments, and a state of chaos ensued as attempts were made to reorganize. Hardly had this process started when Captain Muffling returned from a reconnaissance on 5 October with the alarming news that Napoleon himself had some days before already left
the Würzburg/Bamberg area and was advancing with a large force toward Bayreuth and Coburg as if intending to invade Saxony. At once the whole issue returned into the melting pot and more time was wasted as the news and its implications were hotly debated. Should the Prussians draw up behind the Saale, or should the three armies join near Leipzig? Nobody, however, reverted to Scharnhorst’s plan. He lamented: “What we ought to do I know right well; what we shall do, only the gods know.”19
At last Brunswick made up his mind - or rather had his decision forced upon him by developing circumstances, for Napoleon had already taken the initiative. In order “to defeat them by an oblique and rapid movement against the direction they will be following,”20 he ordered the army to mass west of the Saale to threaten the French western flank. Strong cavalry forces, supported by the Duke of Weimar’s infantry detachment, were to probe the French communications toward Neustadt and Hildburghausen. The remainder of Brunswick’s army was to reach Weimar by 9 October and then move on toward Blankenheim, while Hohenlohe was to reach Hochdorf on the same day, before concentrating at Rudolstadt to the west of the Saale. A small part of Tauenzien’s reconnaissance force was left to watch Hof, while Rüchel was to send detachments toward the already famous Fulda Gap to increase the perils to Napoleon’s rear, his main force marching from Eisenach to make contact with Brunswick between Gotha and Fulda. The 13,000-strong general reserve was to move from Magdeburg to Halle, ready to join Brunswick at Leipzig or Naumburg as events dictated.
Granted that this was a wholly defensive operational scheme, all in all it represented a sound plan, but the detail was excessive. This permitted Hohenlohe, jubilant that his senior’s plan for driving on Würzburg had been abandoned, to presume that his concept for a massing of troops east of the Saale was thereby agreed, at least by implication. Accordingly, without reference to his commander-in-chief, he promptly ordered the Saxon corps to Auma and Schleiz, while a further division under Prince Louis Ferdinand was moved to Saalfeld. The result was to place these troops directly in the path of Napoleon’s advance.
Napoleon’s Operational Plan
While the Prussians wavered from one course of action to another, Napoleon was completing his own mobilization plans, calling to the tricolors 30,000 reservists and calling up 50,000 conscripts of the class of 1806 on 5 September. The tsar’s refusal to ratify the pact convinced the emperor that there was trouble afoot; and even if the Prussians were a month ahead of him in terms of preparations for war, he intended to preempt their offensive. Accordingly, the same day found Berthier ordered “to send engineer officers to make full reconnaissance of the roads from
Bamberg to Berlin, taking all necessary risks.”21 He was further ordered to make ready to assemble Soult’s IV, Ney’s VI, and Augereau’s VII Corps at Bamberg within a week of receiving the executive order. Four days later the chief of staff was informed that in the event of war the line of communications would most likely run from Strasburg to Mannheim, Mainz, and Würzburg, utilizing the Rhine and Main Rivers for barge traffic.22
Paradoxically, the very indecision and continuous redeployments of the Prussian forces caused Napoleon considerable difficulty. As intelligence reports began to arrive at GQG, he found their reported movements impossible to understand - as well he might. Why were they not preparing to hold the mighty Elbe River line, “the Rhine of Prussia”? Why were they placing themselves so far forward and to the west of the Elbe barrier when any rudimentary knowledge of the basic principles of operational art should have convinced Frederick-William III of the advantages he could acquire by trading time for space (particularly as Napoleon now had good reason to believe that Russia was on the point of allying herself to Prussia and doubtless “infamous Albion” to form a fourth coalition)? “Prussian movements continue to be most extraordinary,” he informed Berthier on 10 September. “They need to be taught a lesson. My horses leave [Paris] tomorrow and the Guard will follow in a few days time.… If the news continues to indicate that the Prussians have lost their heads, I shall travel directly to Würzburg or Bamberg.”23 Clearly, Napoleon was still leaving his options open. If the enemy marched for the Upper Main, then Würzburg would constitute the better center of operations. If they continued to hesitate, then Bamberg would be his choice.
Napoleon is known to have considered three possible operational plans for the campaign of 1806. His problem was to devise a means of ensuring the decisive defeat of Prussia without exposing French territory - or that of its allies - to Prussian (or conceivably British) invasion and ideally before Russia could intervene in the struggle.
The three courses of action open to him were as follows. First, the most direct route to Berlin lay from Wesel through Münster and Hanover. Much of this area was already in French hands, and its proximity to the Channel and North Sea would facilitate warding off any British landing in the area. On the other hand, there were several major disadvantages in this option. The redeployment of the Grand Armée from its present location in cantonments around the Main and Danube Rivers would take no little time to achieve. It might not be complete before the onset of winter, and this could earn the Prussian foe time to appreciate Napoleon’s purposes, to bring Bennigsen’s Russian army from the east, and even make it possible for Austria, anxious to avenge the humiliations of 1805, to throw over the Peace of Pressburg and enter the struggle, which would thus become one of continental extent. Two final disadvantages clinched the issue. A series of major river lines bisected this route of advance upon
Berlin, offering Prussia a series of natural defensive positions. Furthermore, the greater distance the Prussians retreated the closer they would come to their Russian friends.
Second, there was the possibility of an offensive directed from a center of operations at Mainz through the Fulda Gap toward Eisenach, where after a line of operations through either Magdeburg or Leipzig and Dessau - or both - would force through a road to Berlin and Potsdam. Such an operational scheme held the advantages of being closer to the present French cantonments, and of using the tried invasion route of the Fulda Gap. But after Fulda the terrain became far less favorable; the Unstrut, Saale, and Elbe Rivers would have to be crossed in turn; once again, any Prussian retreat eastward would bring them closer to the Russians; and it would be difficult to keep a close eye on Austria.
Third, there was an operational plan based upon Würzburg and Bamberg, leading to a major drive northeastward, toward Gera, Leipzig, and, once again, Berlin. The advantages of such an operational plan were substantial. First, at strategic level, Napoleon would be able to represent his offensive as an attempt to assist Saxony against the Prussian invaders who had already crossed its frontiers unbidden. It was also evident from the map that the forming-up areas were closest to the present dispersal zones of the corps d’armée - and close enough to the Danube to continue to overawe Austria - provided the generally north-flowing Saale and Pleisse as useful flank guards once the main movement was established. It also offered the possibility of driving a salient between the Prussians west of the Saale and any possible Russian intervention.
Of course, there were also disadvantages. The opening of the campaign would involve the passage of the difficult Thüringer Wald over only three available passes of which one or more might be blocked if the Prussians divulged the French intentions. During this early part of the incursion into Saxony, moreover, there would be no viable lateral roads to permit intercommunication between the three French columns. However, Napoleon doubted the Prussians would be able to block all three passes, and whichever routes proved open would permit the more fortunate column or columns to take the defenders of any blocking position in the flank or rear. However, this route, like both of the others, would inevitably lead to the mighty Elbe, which would have to be crossed. And third, as this operational plan was placed farthest from the English Channel, special security measures would have to be taken to provide for any British raiding activities against the northern coasts of the French empire. These measures might nevertheless be used to create the appearances of a major Franco-Dutch drive into north Germany, thus distracting Prussian attention and resources northward during the critical period just before and during the first period of the main attack. Such a diversionary effort could only be advantageous.
By 15 September Napoleon was in a position provisionally to make up his mind. News had arrived of the Prussian border incursion into Saxony. That being the case, the best routes toward Dresden or Leipzig and ultimately Berlin and Potsdam evidently lay through Bamberg. Its proximity to the three roads traversing the Thüringer Wald, the chain of forested mountains, presented problems associated with their crossing that also provided a convenient “curtain of maneuver” to conceal the French operational concentration from prying Prussian patrols. Furthermore, the Grand Armée’s advance from Bamberg to Leipzig and Berlin would sooner or later compel the Prussian generals to offer battle to save their capital from occupation by the French.
Three days later, on 18 September, more details reached Napoleon of the Prussian actions proceeding in Saxony, including their forcible incorporation of that state’s small army into Frederick-William III’s armament, and Napoleon no longer hesitated. The time for determined action had come. Over a period of forty-eight hours in a prodigious demonstration of his working capacity Napoleon dictated no less than 120 separate orders. The whole army was forthwith placed on a fully mobilized status. The Imperial Guard at once left Paris in convoys of special wagons to cover the 550 kilometers to beyond Mainz, reaching that city on the twenty-seventh. Most important of all was the lengthy “General Disposition for the Assembly of the Grand Army,” a document that formed the basis for the whole campaign about to unfold. It emphasized three crucial dates. By 2 October Augereau’s VII, Ney’s VI, and Bernadotte’s I Corps were to have concentrated at Frankfurt, Nürnburg, and Ansbach, respectively, ready in all respects to march. By the end of 3 October Davout’s III Corps was to have moved from Nördlingen to Bamberg, there to join GQG, while Lefebvre’s V Corps was to have reached Königshofen, and the artillery and baggage trains were to be massed at Würzburg. By 4 October Soult’s IV Corps was to be at Amberg, following a lengthy march from its cantonments on the River Inn. Sent out by galloping staff couriers early on the twentieth, this missive was in Berthier’s hands at Munich four days later.
Another vital document had already been sent posthaste two weeks earlier to Louis Bonaparte, ruler of Holland. This memorandum spelled out the role Louis was to assume during the prelude to and the early days of the campaign. “Hasten to mobilize your troops,” Napoleon enjoined his younger fratello: “Reunite all available forces so as to deceive them [the Prussians] and protect your frontiers while I leap into the center of Prussia with my army, marching directly on Berlin. Keep all this secret.”24 On 19 September the emperor continued with his instructions. “As my intention is not to attack from your side, I desire you to open your campaign on 1st October by threatening the enemy. The ramparts of the Wesel and Rhine will serve you as refuge in any unforeseen eventuality.”25 To strengthen the right flank of the Dutch forces and to protect his
magazines and depots along the lower Rhine, Napoleon ordered Marshal Mortier to form the VIII Corps at Mainz. In the event of a rapid French victory in central Germany, Louis and Mortier were to advance and occupy Kassel. These forces would also serve conveniently as the “anvil” for Napoleon’s “hammer,” should the Prussians after all march to occupy the weakly defended area between Bamberg and Mainz.
Thus, the operational requirements of security, deception, and exploitation were all carefully balanced. “I only count on your forces to serve as a means of diversion to amuse the enemy up to October 12,” the emperor continued in a missive dated the thirtieth,
To complete his precautionary measures the emperor mobilized Eugène Beauharnais and a reinforced army of Italy to keep a watch on Austrian reactions. As for the possibility of an inconvenient British descent on France or toward Hanover, Napoleon relied on Marshal Brune’s 16,000 men split up in town garrisons, supported by the gendarmerie and local National Guard units, being able to hold up any exploitation of such a landing until Louis could put in train measures from Holland while Marshal Kellerman marched up the 8,000-strong strategic reserve from Paris and a force of 2,000 cavalry drawn from the departments. These operational plans reveal Napoleon at his best as a master of operational art.
The time for action had come. Napoleon’s entourage set out at 0430 on Thursday, 25 September. He was soon burning the roads toward Mainz, traveling almost nonstop by way of Verdun, Saarbrücken, and Kaiserslautern. From Mainz, after a welcome two-day pause, his coaches and escort headed for Frankfurt. On 2 October Napoleon reached Würzburg and took over formal command from a very relieved Berthier. On the sixth he moved on Bamberg amidst welcome signs of converging French forces.27
Still there was no formal declaration of war - but it was not now to be long delayed. On 24 September, just before Napoleon left Paris, the Prussian government issued its long-anticipated ultimatum. Unless the French withdrew all their troops west of the Rhine, accepted the formation of a north German confederation of states under the aegis of Prussia, immediately returned the territory of Wesel, agreed to an international summit to discuss the remaining outstanding issues, and notified acceptance of these conditions to arrive in Berlin by 8 October at the latest, then a state of open war would exist between Prussia and the French empire. The forwarded ultimatum only reached Napoleon at Bamberg on
7 October. At dawn the next day the Grand Armée marched into Prussian- occupied Saxon territory. Such was Napoleon’s immediate reply. And by ironic chance, France’s written reply, forwarded from Berlin, only reached Frederick-William’s hands on the fourteenth, in the middle of the Jena-Auerstädt campaign.
A major clash of arms was now obviously imminent. From Würzburg, Napoleon had issued to Marshal Soult a full operational order:
And so, indeed, it was to prove. Early on 8 October the move into the defiles of the Thüringer Wald began, crossing the Saxon frontier without encountering opposition in the process. A force of light cavalry, who, following their orders, began to empty every letterbox and to interrogate every peasant they met amid the passes, headed each of the three columns. Napoleon was aware that he was taking considerable risks and that his knowledge of Prussian military movements was incomplete.
Le bataillon carré in Action
Napoleon’s plan for crossing the difficult Thüringer Wald region illustrates his mastery of the principles of flexibility, mutual support, and the achievement of local superiority at one or more of the three exits
from the Franconian forest. Napoleon tentatively believed on incomplete evidence that the enemy’s main body was either near Leipzig to the north or Erfurt to the west, and that some problems (possibly Russian intervention) might take place from around Dresden to the northeast. He tended to think that the first hypothesis, supplemented by the second, was the most likely combination. In this analysis of Prussian likely force movements, he was both right and wrong. In fact Prince Hohenlohe (with 35,000 men) was near Erfurt but already far nearer to the River Saale and Jena to his east than Napoleon believed to be the case. As for Brunswick’s main army (60,000 strong) and Rüchel’s third force (a weak 15,000, barely worth the designation army), both were also in fact well to the west of the Saale but within supporting distance of Hohenlohe. That officer had approved the placing of two forward detachments without Brunswick’s full knowledge, namely 8,300 men under Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia (at thirty-three years, acknowledged as a gifted young commander of great promise, “the white-hot hope of Prussia” and a prominent member of the Prussian court War Party) at Saalfeld, and General Bolesas Friedrich Tauenzien (commander of Hohenlohe’s advance guard) with 9,000 men (including 3,000 pressed Saxons) near Schleiz. Both of them were east of the River Saale and right in the path of Napoleon’s proposed line of operations. There were no large concentrations of Prussian troops near Leipzig (as Napoleon believed there must be, to guard the approaches to the River Elbe, which he still expected to become the scene of the main Prussian stand) except the Prussian Reserve. Thirteen thousand men at Halle under command of Eugen of Württemberg had a triple role: being prepared to reinforce Brunswick at Naumburg or at Leipzig as might be deemed necessary by the unfolding of events and also charged with the security of the great fortress-city of Magdeburg on the Elbe far to his rear. Thus, Napoleon was indeed largely operating in the dark when his movement began on 8 October.
This notwithstanding, within seventy-two hours le bataillon carré had successfully crossed the Thüringer Wald and established itself beyond. Marshal Murat’s advance guard of cavalry engaged in a few skirmishes with Prussian pickets. By dusk on the eighth the heads of the three main columns had reached their designated halting places at Coburg, Lobenstein, and Münchberg, respectively. The first two were just short of the Franconian forest, and the third (Soult’s IV Corps) almost through it. The first real opposition was encountered on the morning of the ninth, when Murat’s cavalry, joined in due course by Bernadotte’s hard-marching I Corps after passing the Thüringer Wald and crossing the upper reaches of the Saale, ran into Tauenzien’s force near Schleiz. A mainly cavalry and dragoon action ensued, which forced the Prussians and Saxons to retreat and thus opened the road for the French center column toward Auma and distant Gera. By dusk the remaining two col-
umns had safely reached Saalfeld (Lannes’ V Corps) and Hof (Soult’s IV Corps) and taken or established bridges over the Upper Saale.
Confusion and misunderstandings of intent continued to dog the Prussian high command. Hohenlohe, on news of the action at Schleiz, had ordered his army to cross the Middle Saale and advance to Auma, there to support and rally Tauenzien, covered by a delaying action to be fought by Prince Louis Ferdinand. But Hohenlohe’s superior, Brunswick, countermanded the move, substituting an advance toward Rudolstadt, and for once the prince acceded. Prince Louis Ferdinand was now instructed to fall back to Rudolstadt and avoid battle if possible. But this new order reached its addressee too late. From early on the tenth Lannes and the Prussian prince had been locked in combat near Saalfeld. The 14,000 French troops available (Augereau’s VII Corps had fallen behind) routed their 7,000 opponents when Quartermaster Guindet of the 10th Hussars killed Prince Louis Ferdinand in a man-to-man mounted combat. This triggered a disaster that caused his men to flee, which resulted in 2,700 casualties (including 1,800 prisoners) and the loss of 33 guns, compared to the French with 172 killed and wounded.
It now appeared to the Prussian generals that Napoleon was indeed breaking through toward Leipzig - thus placing their communications in peril - so Hohenlohe pulled back toward Kahla en route for Jena, while the other two armies set out to re-concentrate at Weimar. The emperor, informed by Soult that the garrison of Plauen had fled northward, now believed that battle would be given by the Prussians at Gera in order to protect Leipzig (“I doubt, however, whether he can unite [his forces] before I can”29) and ordered all formations to press ahead northward to forestall the Prussians there. If there were no major battle there, it would doubtlessly occur at Leipzig or on the Elbe. Once again, therefore, Napoleon had reached an erroneous conclusion, although had Hohenlohe’s plan of the ninth been implemented, he might have been correct in large measure. Thus, the Prussians in confusion were even now puzzling their great opponent.
Everywhere the French light cavalry and dragoons were seeking information. During the eleventh it became clear that there were no Prussians near Gera nor, even more surprisingly, in the region of Leipzig. Late that night Lannes reported that large Prussian forces were still west of the Middle Saale. Napoleon at once recast his operational plan. Expecting that the battle he was seeking would now take place near Erfurt, probably on 16 October, his orders for implementation of the twelfth inaugurated the famous wheel of le bataillon carré through 90 degrees to move westward, toward the Middle Saale instead of toward Leipzig as hitherto planned. Lannes and Augereau became the new advance guard, Davout and Bernadotte the new right wing, the Guard and Reserve Cavalry the new left, and Soult and Ney the reserve positioned to the east. Auma
was designated the new “center of operations,” which the trains and hospitals were to reach as soon as possible. Davout was to press ahead for Naumburg, and Lannes and Augereau were to approach Jena and keep in contact with the enemy. At this stage Napoleon envisaged his army’s crossing the Middle Saale on the fourteenth. Meanwhile, Murat and the light cavalry were to continue to scour the land toward Leipzig in search of corroborative intelligence information, and Soult was to stay around Gera, watching for any sign of enemy activity to the north or east. These were indications that Napoleon was still not wholly convinced about the accuracy of his recast intention analysis and his operational assumptions. As always, he allowed for as many alternative situations as possible. “I am completely enveloping the enemy,” wrote Napoleon to Soult, “but I have to take measures against what he might attempt to do.”30
This lack of hard information was not, however, of critical importance. The beautiful flexibility of the corps d’armée system would permit him to meet almost any situation. If, as Napoleon now expected, the Prussians chose to accept battle near Erfurt (their presently presumed location) on 16 October (the assumed date), then Lannes, Augereau, and Ney would be in a position to attack the enemy frontally. Soult could move up to assume the role of the masse de décision. Bernadotte and Davout could sweep down from Naumburg in the north against the Prussian left flank and rear, severing their communications running back to Halle. If, on the other hand, the Prussians tried to avoid battle and set out for Halle (there to assimilate their army reserves) in an attempt to regain Leipzig or the Elbe, the French roles would be reversed. The I and III Corps would block the enemy’s line of retreat and hold until the masse débordante - now comprising V, VII, and VI Corps, with IV and the Guard in reserve - could sweep up against the Prussian rear. And, theoretically, if a hypothetical Russo-Prussian force should appear most inopportunely from Dresden to the east, Soult should still be strong enough with the Bavarians and possibly Ney (if still within marching distance) to hold up the unwelcome newcomers while the main army completed its business with the main Prussian Army before countermarching to relieve the embattled Soult. This flexible range of options open to the French illustrates the value of Napoleon’s operational formation: it could adjust itself to almost any eventuality. And the whole concept rested upon the fighting power of Napoleon’s key “operational fire,” the balanced, all-arm, individual corps d’armée.
“On the other side of the hill” the Prussian generals met in anxious conclave early on the thirteenth. Hohenlohe had to report that his withdrawal through Kahla and then from Jena the previous day had been complicated by a panic among his remaining Saxon troops as Lannes’ cavalry patrols came into sight from the south. News had also arrived on the twelfth that the French were in Naumburg, threatening to close the
line of the River Unstrutt - and this developing crisis caused Frederick-William III to convene a new council of war. A few argued for a major confrontation at Jena, but most advised an immediate retreat on Leipzig by way of Auerstädt, the Kosen Pass, Freiburg, and Merseberg, collecting the reserve from Halle en route to safeguard the armies’ links with the Elbe. After long and often fiery debate, Brunswick announced his decision. Hohenlohe’s force was to take post at Kapellendorf between Weimar and Jena, with Rüchel’s force in support at Weimar itself, to cover the main army’s march on Auerstädt. Once the king and Brunswick and their troops were clear of that town, Hohenlohe would assume duties of rearguard commander and follow his seniors northward. These orders were to become operative with effect from 1000 hours that same morning.
The Operational Climax Approaches
Napoleon reached Gera about 2000 on the twelfth and there impatiently bided his time waiting for definite news from Lannes. In the early hours he had issued preliminary orders for the thirteenth, which reflects the degree to which the Grand Armée was “marking time.” Apart from two formations - Ney’s VI Corps and Bernadotte’s I Corps - which were ordered to close up on Roda and Naumburg, respectively, all the rest were told to stay where they were, collect stragglers, reprovision, and rest. The emperor even found time to write a line to Josephine:
This doubtlessly welcome pause in operations was rudely shattered at 0900, when three pieces of critical intelligence information reached GQG. The first was a secret agent’s report, relayed by Murat, that the king and queen of Prussia had been seen at Erfurt on the eleventh, that a Prussian pontoon train had moved northwest from Weissenfels on the twelfth, and that there were unmistakable signs of large-scale troop movements on the Fulda-Erfurt-Naumburg highroad. Next a courier from Davout at Naumburg arrived. Interrogations of prisoners of war, Prussian deserters, and civilians had revealed beyond doubt that the main Prussian army was between Weimar and Erfurt, that the king of Prussia had certainly been at Erfurt on the eleventh, and that there were no signs whatsoever of Prussian troops between Naumburg and Leipzig. Third, an aide from Augereau at Kahla reported that certain enemy formations, originally identified as being at Jena, were in fact moving on Erfurt through Weimar to join the enemy main body.
Although there was still no word from Lannes, close to the Saale near Jena with his V Corps, Napoleon believed that he had now at last penetrated the Prussian intentions. “At last the veil is torn,” he wrote to Murat at about 0930:
It is important to note that Napoleon was still prey to a degree of doubt and that indeed he had uncovered only about 90 percent of the enemy’s plans. Napoleon was by no means infallible, as we have seen, but his operational concepts and methods were highly flexible, capable of rapid adjustment in the light of revealed developments.
Riding fast with his “little headquarters” and escort of Guard cavalry, Napoleon was intercepted at 0300 by the long-awaited courier from Lannes. The occasional thunder of guns could be heard a few miles to the west. Breaking the seal and quickly glancing at its contents, Berthier handed the dispatch to his master. Writing that morning from west of the Saale, the marshal reported that 12,000–15,000 enemy troops were presently in position immediately north of Jena and that an estimated 20,000–25,000 more were still between Jena and Weimar. Questing patrols were out seeking confirmation. “I desire to know whether it is the intention of Your Majesty that I should advance my corps towards Weimar. I dare not assume responsibility of ordering such a move in case Your Majesty may have some other destination for me.”33
Loyal but cautious subordinate! The total dependence of senior commanders on Napoleon’s support in advance for anything that might smack of independent thought is well illustrated. On the morrow the perils of presuming to do so would cause Napoleon to berate Ney. Although indubitably one of the most courageous, Ney also was one of the less intelligent of the marshalcy (“thickest of the thick,” perhaps, as well as “bravest of the brave”).
Now at last Napoleon realized the error of his belief that the “bloody solution to the crisis” would not take place until 16 October. The enemy was nearer than he thought. Accordingly, Napoleon dictated the day’s third set of orders from the saddle. As it was now clear that the battle would take place on the fourteenth, Davout was to maneuver west from Naumburg on the evening of the thirteenth “so as to fall on the enemy’s left” if he heard the sound of guns firing from the south. Bernadotte was to continue to Dornburg, ready to support Lannes should he be attacked. If these corps heard no firing, both were to await the morrow’s first orders before crossing the Saale. Murat’s cavalry was to hasten for Dornburg,
and both Soult’s IV and Ney’s VI Corps were to force-march toward Jena, where Lefebvre and the infantry component of the Imperial Guard was to rejoin the emperor at the earliest possible moment.
Riding over the Saale, Napoleon joined Lannes at his forward headquarters on the steep Landgrafen-Berg feature northwest of Jena town. The marshal quickly briefed him on the current situation. The V Corps had reached Jena unopposed in a thick fog early that morning. General Suchet’s division had pressed ahead to the Landgrafen-Berg, where he had run into Prussian pickets and driven them off to the nearby villages of Lützeroda and Closewitz. He respectfully but strongly asserted that at least 40,000 opponents were present and that the French should remain west of the Saale. Napoleon approved these suggestions and ordered the remainder of V Corps and the Guard Infantry (when arrived) to be ready to pass the Saale as soon as dusk would conceal their movement. He clearly also believed he was in the presence of the main Prussian Army.
The development of the French “intelligence picture” between 9 and 13 October is an excellent and revealing example of Napoleon’s operational art in action. Although far from infallible, it eventually worked with the minimum of confusion, despite a number of serious miscalculations - and indeed a virtual 72-hour “blackout” - which might have thrown a lesser army into chaos.
Table 1 illustrates the Grand Armée’s reinforcement capacity from late on the thirteenth to the afternoon of the fourteenth:
Such a concentration of force within twenty-eight hours is a further tribute to Napoleon’s concept and Berthier’s staff work. Some forty miles were at this stage separating the two wings of the army. Messages may be calculated to have moved at about 5.5 miles an hour. As GQG was about
equidistant from Davout and Ney and the usual time between receipt of an order and its actual implementation was in the region of at least two hours, the time that passed between an order issued and its execution by a wing commander can be said to have been about six hours. Napoleon grew in his conviction that he was pinning the main Prussian Army, and he grew anxious to strengthen the envelopment aspect of the forthcoming battle.
Plans of Battle
Napoleon’s provisional operational plan was now clear in his mind. From 0600 on the morrow (14 October), Lannes, supported by the Guard in reserve, would enlarge the French bridgehead over the Saale, taking control of as much of the plateau beyond the Landgrafen-Berg as possible and occupying the villages of Lützeroda and Closewitz. This would make room for the arrival on the field of the next wave of converging French forces. About 1000, immediately to the north, the leading elements of Soult’s powerful IV Corps (eventually 27,000 strong in all) would extend the battlefield to the right by moving to Lobstädt and thence through Zwätzen up on to the plateau to capture Rödigen and feel for the tactical left flank of the Prussians. Simultaneously, Augereau’s VII Corps (16,500 strong) would advance from the direction of Kahla on the French left, crossing the Mühlbach Stream west of Jena before swinging half-left up the Schnecke Pass to mount the Flomberg and feel for the Prussian right flank. By midday the remainder of his corps should have reinforced Soult, and passing through Jena the newly arrived VI Corps of Ney would take over the central plateau area from Lannes’ long-engaged divisions assisted by heavy cavalry. (See Map 1.)
Napoleon was confident that these formations and dispositions would suffice to hold and ultimately defeat the Prussian Army, but if success was to be transformed into triumph the arrival of sufficient force in the Prussian rear at the correct time and place had to occur. Up to the midafternoon issue of orders, Napoleon had planned for Davout to sweep down from Naumburg, while Bernadotte and Murat attacked over the Saale closer to Jena. Now, at 2200 hours, Napoleon saw that the true key to the Prussian communications (recently revealed to be running north toward the distant Elbe) lay in the town of Apolda, eight miles northwest of Jena. This could be reached either from Naumburg through Auerstädt or due west through Dornburg. A single, double-corps intervention would be more effective than two separate advances on Apolda. So Napoleon sent out yet another order to Davout, setting Apolda as his ultimate objective for the fourteenth, and including the atypically ambiguous phrase from which much trouble was to stem for Bernadotte: “If the Duke of Ponte Corvo [Bernadotte] is still with you, you can march together. The Emperor hopes, however, that he will be in the position which he has as-
signed for him at Dornburg.”34 In fact Bernadotte was still with Davout, who communicated the emperor’s order to him personally in the early hours of the fourteenth, but Bernadotte’s dislike for Davout and refusal to be seen as in any way under his orders caused him to disregard the imperial caveat, instead insisting on marching south toward Dornburg with his men. This act of disobedience was to place Davout in the greatest peril later that morning. The commander of I Corps in due course attempted to justify his actions on the grounds of the rather vague second sentence. It was almost to bring him before a court-martial and a possible firing squad for gross dereliction of duty.
Thus, Napoleon had envisaged a classical operational plan of battle based on a maneuver of envelopment. But between intention and actual execution there could only be a large gulf, as 14 October was clearly to demonstrate.
The night of 13–14 October found Napoleon laboring alongside his engineers and fantassins. To extemporize a road up the Landgrafen-Berg and its culminating peak, the Windknollen, suitable for artillery, every battalion in turn was required to labor for an hour, according to Marbot.35 The torches to illuminate the work were hidden from the foe by the blaze of Jena’s lights beyond. The security of these peaks was critical for the development of the operational plan at daylight. The work completed on his orders for the morrow issue, and 25,000 men and forty-two cannon safely deployed on and about the two summits, Napoleon slept soundly, bivouacked in the midst of a square formed by the Grenadiers of the Guard.
Over the valley, Prince Hohenlohe slept more fitfully amid his 38,000 men, but with no idea that he was facing the main French Army. He considered the French on the Landgrafen-Berg to be merely a flank-guard that, together with another French force reportedly at Naumburg, were between them covering the presumed major French advance continuing north, toward Leipzig. Both commanders were therefore in for some surprises on the fourteenth. The “fog of war” was supplemented by a thick mist that spread down the Saale River valley before dawn. Napoleon was confident of fighting with an overall superiority of force. And so he would, indeed - and to a far greater extent than he ever envisaged. But the same would not be the case for Davout.
Operational Considerations in the Battle
At Jena Napoleon fought from 0400 for ten hours with a force that began the action at a strength of 46,000 men and 70 guns and ultimately reached 96,000 men and 120 guns from shortly after midday. Right
through the day he believed he was fighting Brunswick’s main army, which might have been 100,000 men and 350 guns strong had it all been present. In fact, Napoleon only faced Hohenlohe’s flank guard of 38,000 men and 120 guns, reinforced very belatedly at 1500 by General Rüchel’s command, 15,000 strong, from Weimar. His intervention only served to increase the scale of the Prussian disaster. By the approach of the autumnal dusk, the Prussians had suffered 25,000 casualties, including 15,000 taken prisoner (or 47 percent of their effective battle strength, Rüchel included). The French casualties stood at approximately 5,000 (or 5 percent) as Hohenlohe’s and Rüchel’s survivors fled for Erfurt hotly pursued by the Reserve Cavalry led in flamboyant style by Murat in person, who signified his scorn for the enemy by wielding only a riding-crop, refusing to draw his saber. By 1700 he was in the streets of Weimar. Two days later he would enter Erfurt.36
The battle did not go exactly according to the operational plan, and three events require mention. First, Lannes’ initial attack against General Tauenzien’s advance guard, after making considerable early progress and capturing the villages of Closewitz, Cospeda, and Lützeroda, ran into serious trouble when Tauenzien managed to launch a telling counterstroke with 5,000 rallied troops to split the French corps in two and regain much ground. Fortunately for the French (for Ney was not yet in the field), the progress of Soult’s and Augereau’s probing advances on the flanks induced the Prussian advance guard commander to halt his successful follow-through, and, fearful of tactical envelopment, to fall back to join Prince Hohenlohe’s main body farther to the west. Thus, Napoleon’s operational concept of supporting a beleaguered formation with neighboring outflanking forces was well demonstrated. By 1000 the French had secured most of the plateau.
Second, there is the matter of Marshal Ney’s ill-judged intervention in the battle. By 1100 Hohenlohe launched General Gräwert in an attempt to regain the plateau. Eleven battalions, deployed into line to face Lannes’ tiring men, and Prussian cavalry was soon massing in force behind them. Suddenly an unanticipated struggle blazed into furious life south of the village of Vierzehnheiligen. This proved to be the work of some impatient French newcomers, namely the advance guard of VI Corps, with just two light cavalry regiments and five battalions, the fiery, addlepated Marshal Ney at their head. After chafing for several hours awaiting the arrival of the main part of his command, Ney’s lion heart overruled his head and he plunged straight into battle, blithely accepting odds of two to one and heading for a strong Prussian battery. Against all probability his attack reached the cannon, scattered the gunners, and forced the postponement of an attack on Lannes by forty-five Prussian squadrons. There Ney’s good fortune ran out; massively counterattacked, and out of supporting distance of Lannes or Augereau, his survivors were
forced to form a square. It took Napoleon’s personal order to General Bertrand to lead the only two cavalry regiments in reserve (Murat had yet to reach the field) in a desperate and a costly rescue operation, supported by a determined drive by the men of the nigh-exhausted V Corps toward Vierzehnheiligen. Both attacks were ultimately driven back, but their intervention enabled Ney to return to the French lines, surrendering the village of Isserstädt on the way. Napoleon was not best pleased by this unauthorized adventure; Ney was in any case supposed to have attacked, when the time was right, on Lannes’ farther (not nearer) flank. “The Emperor was very much displeased at Marshal Ney’s obstinacy,” recalled General Rapp. “He said a few words to him on the subject - but with delicacy.”37 According to other accounts, this was the occasion when Napoleon declared that Ney knew less about warfare “than the last-joined drummer-boy.”38 This incident illustrates how Napoleon’s control of his subordinates could on occasion falter at the operational level.
The third aspect of Jena relates to the Napoleonic equivalent of operational fires. At Jena, we find the development of the use of concentrated artillery fire. Now, six years after Marengo and ten months after Austerlitz, the emperor produced his first massed battery as an extemporization to counter a moment of French weakness toward the end of the battle. It happened as follows. After Hohenlohe’s defeat, Rüchel’s force of 15,000 men made their appearance - belated but fresh - along the Weimar road. The sight of Lannes’ and Ney’s hurrying columns gave the newcomers reason for pause, but their withdrawal began as a model operation, infantry and cavalry alternately covering each other’s retreats by bounds. Napoleon, eager to exploit the Prussian defeat and having no wish to be held up by this valiant enemy rearguard, called for several batteries of guns (probably three - accounts vary) and had them drawn up to pour close-range fire into Rüchel’s masses. A dozen salvoes wrecked the Prussian forces’ cohesion, and when the French infantry swarmed forward again their foes turned and fled. The result was another 5,000 prisoners and five colors taken. The guns were largely to thank for this sudden resolution of local difficulty.
In future years Napoleon would use artillery in large numbers on many critical occasions. One thinks of the brilliant handling of Senarmount’s guns at Friedland, used as an offensive weapon, or the extemporized great battery at Wagram’s second day in July 1809 that plugged a large gap in the French center and repulsed the Archduke Charles’ threatening counterattack. Although the massed guns at Waterloo did not do their desired work on account of wet ground and Wellington’s skillful placing of troops on the reverse slopes out of sight of the French gunners, Napoleon was right when he claimed “It is with guns that war is made.” His employment of guns at Jena forms part of the evolution of his massed batteries used for operational effect.
Napoleon, weary but elated, made his way back to his headquarters in Jena at about 1700 to find the building decorated with thirty captured Prussian colors. Only two matters remained to be resolved: Where was Davout? And where was Bernadotte? So far there had been no sight or (still worse) sound of the turning movement and blocking actions by way of Apolda and Dornburg, save for the timely arrival of Murat and the light cavalry through the latter in midafternoon.
His tired musings were rudely interrupted. Awaiting his return outside his office was a wounded and travel-stained French officer, Colonel Falcon of III Corps. The news he brought stopped the emperor in his tracks. “Your master must have been seeing double,” he ungraciously snapped in an unworthy reference to the bespectacled Marshal’s shortsightedness. Little by little, however, he came to accept that Davout had in fact fought - and beaten - the main Prussian army at Auerstädt at unfavorable odds of at least two-to-one. Napoleon had to admit that he had made one of the grossest miscalculations in his career to date. Yet the French operational system and the fine fighting qualities of an individual corps d’armée under the brilliant command of “the Iron Marshal” had adjusted to wholly unforeseen circumstances and wrested decisive victory out of seemingly inevitable defeat. But why had III Corps been left to fight so valiantly alone? And, above all, where in the name of le bon Dieu was the Duke of Ponte Corvo and his I Corps? Had the earth swallowed them?
The Military Miracle of Auerstädt
Fifteen miles to the north of Jena, Marshal Louis-Nicolas Davout, age thirty-six, at the head of only 27,000 men and 40 guns of his III Corps, had spent an eventful day. After conveying Napoleon’s late-evening order to Bernadotte at 0230 and being massively snubbed by the Gasçon, Davout set his corps in motion westward from Naumburg, as ordered, at 0400 on the fourteenth. There were reports of military movements detectable to the west, moving from south to north, but nothing could be confirmed owing to the dense mist. Part of the Corps cavalry leading, followed by the divisions of General Gudin, Morand, and Friant in order of march, Davout’s cautious progress westward along the north bank of the River Saale was both concealed and hindered by the fog. The leading troops were well through the village of Hassenhausen en route to Rehausen and distant Auerstädt, when at 0700 on that foggy morning they abruptly ran into four Prussian cavalry squadrons and one battery of artillery at the village of Poppel. This encounter battle of Auerstädt once and for all earned Davout his martial reputation and, somewhat less favorably, a measure of his master’s jealousy and the greater hatred of his colleague Bernadotte.
Details of the famous battle are not part of this discussion.39 Suffice it to say that Davout, unreinforced by Bernadotte despite what was plainly
that officer’s simple duty, fought a steadily escalating encounter battle until he found himself engaged with fully 63,500 Prussians supported by 230 guns, forming the Duke of Brunswick’s entire army. By superlative handling of his limited resources, peering around the battle area through his special battle spectacles, ever present at the forward edge of the battle area (FEBA) despite huge risks, and doubtless aided by a number of Prussian errors (especially after Brunswick and the aged von Mollendorf had been killed or mortally wounded and King Frederick-William III had insisted on taking over command), Davout fought magnificently for nine-and-a-half hours and thoroughly defeated the Prussians. By last light the III Corps had inflicted 13,000 casualties (including 3,000 prisoners) or 20.5 percent, and captured 115 Prussian guns - for the loss of 26 percent of its effective strength on entering battle: namely, 258 officers and 6,974 rank-and-file soldiers dead or wounded. Gudin’s division, the worst hit, lost all of 40 percent of its strength. It was only when he had driven the fleeing foe back through Auerstädt, southwestward to the final crest of the Eckartsberg feature (short of Apolda), that Davout at last halted his exhausted men and sent Colonel Falcon to take the news to the emperor.40 The final compliment payable to Davout’s showing on this occasion is the fact that the Prussian high command freely admitted after the battle that they had believed they had been fighting not only at least 100,000 Frenchmen all day but also Napoleon in person.
Once again the strengths of the corps d’armée system had been brilliantly displayed, above all its sustained fighting power and, under the right leadership, its adaptability to meet triumphantly almost any unforeseen situation. It also permitted Napoleon to survive important mistakes of calculation. He found it hard to appreciate that he had only been fighting one-third of the Prussian Army at Jena, while an isolated subordinate had dealt with the balance single-handed, as it were. But where was Bernadotte? The answer to that would have to wait until the morrow. Napoleon was so weary that he fell asleep while dictating orders for the fifteenth. At a sign from Marshal Lefebvre, the Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard silently formed their habitual square around their sleeping master - sitting on a chair alongside his customary bonfire - and guarded his slumber through the night. Ten miles away, the survivors of Davout’s decimated but victorious corps also slept the sleep of exhaustion. One man, however, spent a troubled night. Near Apolda, Marshal Bernadotte had received a peremptory order from Berthier to report to GQG early next morning and to be ready to explain his actions, or lack of them, on 14 October.
These had indeed been incredible. Bernadotte, as we have seen, refused to obey the emperor’s order dictated at 2200 on the thirteenth, preferring to hold to his previous instructions, namely to march on Dornburg. Even this simple maneuver down a reasonable road along the east bank of the Saale had been poorly conducted, and it was only at 1100
on the fourteenth that the head of I Corps had reached Dornburg, a distance of just nine miles from its starting place near Naumburg. This was not a performance that would place I Corps’ march among the record-breakers of the French Army! Even worse, it transpired that the Duke of Ponte Corvo ignored three separate messages from the heavily engaged Davout, imploring his assistance during the morning. The I Corps eventually proceeded across the Saale and on its leisurely way over the eight miles to Apolda, arriving there about 1600 - after both battles were over and without having fired a single shot all day.
On the fifteenth Bernadotte found himself refused access to the emperor’s inner sanctum. Instead he was searchingly interrogated by an ice-cold Berthier. He blustered away as was his Gasçon wont and attempted to excuse his poor marching record on roads that he described as execrable. This he repeated in his written report. The army held its breath: news of Bernadotte’s misdoing was of course soon common knowledge and the subject of much speculative debate. “The army expected to see Bernadotte severely punished,” recalled Marbot.41 On St. Helena, Napoleon revealed that he had actually signed an order for the marshal’s court-martial, but he then had second thoughts and destroyed it.
It was only on 23 October that the emperor, through Berthier, deigned any reply to Bernadotte’s report.
Napoleon resolved not to court-martial Bernadotte but to continue to use him.
By this date, as we shall see below, a very chastened Bernadotte was performing wonders in the forefront of one of the most decisive pursuits in all military history. Perhaps Napoleon was right to have left him in command of his corps after all. But had he been either with Davout or at Apolda by early afternoon, the fate of the Prussians would have been dramatically worse, though bad enough it had turned out to be.
This incident elicits two comments. First, no matter how carefully organized, the Napoleonic operational art could be gravely compromised by the failure of one corps formation commander. The chain was only as strong as its weakest link. Second, human nature is one of the imponderables of warfare in any age. Nevertheless, Bernadotte would prove a determined survivor, and he would in the end profit by becoming the
only Napoleonic marshal to found a royal dynasty (in Sweden) that has survived to the present day.
The Employment of Operational Reserves
The ruthless and successful pursuit after the double battle of 14 October 1806 has justly gone down into the annals of military history as a masterpiece of what we today would term operational art. The correct employment of reserves above the tactical level is one of the major subthemes of this study, and the events of late 1806 demonstrate what could be achieved against a defeated enemy by a great captain of warfare - as well as certain limitations.
The operational pursuit was not launched immediately after the double battle. Napoleon’s exhaustion and his lack of certainty concerning what had befallen I and III Corps during the fourteenth caused a short delay in mounting a major, carefully considered, operational hue and cry. Apart from Murat - already noted as leading his light cavalry with great élan toward Erfurt on the heels of Hohenlohe and Rüchel - there is little doubt that most unwounded officers and men, including their emperor, succumbed to weariness and, after a brief period of euphoria, to depression, as they sought missing friends over the battlefield and extemporized some sort of meal after so many hours of combat. Of course, it may be said that for once Napoleon showed human weakness in succumbing to slumber at such a moment. It is in the moment and the immediate aftermath of victory, as in the time of defeat, that the senior commander must show energy and determination - and drive his equally weary subordinates to still greater efforts to exploit the foe’s difficulties and afford him no time to recover his equilibrium and re-form. And this was usually Napoleon’s way, to be sure.
In mid-October 1806 there was no immediate cause for anxiety on the last score. The chaos and confusion among the fleeing Prussian armies must have beggared belief. This became particularly the case when men of Hohenlohe and Rüchel, attempting to flee west and northwest, collided with Brunswick’s columns trying to force their way south from Auerstädt. Had Bernadotte only been at Apolda earlier than 1600 - or remained with Davout, the Prussian cataclysm must have become far greater than was in fact the case.
So it was only at 0500 on the fifteenth that orders for a general pursuit were issued - and of course took several hours to put into full implementation. Napoleon’s eventual plan for the pursuit closely reflects his favorite operational maneuver. Murat, Soult, and Ney were to apply the maximum frontal pressure against the retiring enemy, while la masse
débordante, formed by Bernadotte’s, Lannes’, Davout’s, and Augereau’s corps, were to strive to outmarch and outflank the Prussians, and seize Halle and Dessau behind them and then the distant Elbe crossings. Of course, only I Corps was fresh on the fifteenth, the rest having been heavily engaged the previous day.
But Bernadotte now made up to a certain degree for his earlier negligence. While Murat rounded up between 9,000 and 14,000 prisoners (authorities differ) at Erfurt on the sixteenth, the leading division of I Corps commanded by General Dupont marched flat out for Halle, reaching it on the seventeenth to fight a brisk engagement against the Duke of Württemberg’s Reserve, capturing 11 cannon and 5,000 men (practically half his force of 11,300 infantry, 1,675 cavalry and 38 guns) for a cost of some 800 casualties. Much more of the same was to follow.
Perhaps, therefore, we may suggest that Bernadotte’s misbehavior on the fourteenth proved a blessing in disguise as it provided Napoleon, unintentionally to be sure, with a substantial reserve force of fresh troops capable of heading the subsequent pursuit, imbued with a genuine desire to refurbish their dulled reputation in the eyes of the Grand Armée and its chief. Certainly such a psychological reaction can be hazarded for Bernadotte, who over the following weeks was to produce a virtuoso performance.
On the eighteenth the French lines of communication were switched from distant Würzburg and Bamberg nearer to Mainz, the line running in ten stages over 160 miles to Erfurt - the newly designated center of operations - by way of Frankfurt, Eisenach, and Gotha.
Two days later and the French had reached the Elbe on a broad front. The same day, Frederick-William III left his army for the River Oder, heading for East Prussia and, he hoped, signs of a Russian deliverance. A bewildered Hohenlohe was ordered to extemporize a strong garrison for Magdeburg. Instead, he decided to head first for Berlin and then for Stettin at the mouth of the River Oder, fearful that Napoleon’s pursuit would otherwise catch up with him. Meanwhile, farther to the west, Blücher retreated northward through Brunswick City with his cavalry and many Prussian heavier guns, which hampered his progress more than a little.
Davout was first over the Elbe in strength at Wittenberg - completing the operation by 1500 on the twentieth with the aid of the apprehensive townsfolk, who prevented the Prussian engineers from blowing the bridge. Farther west, Bernadotte - subject to repeated verbal lashings from Napoleon, dutifully (and with just a touch of malice) forwarded in writing by the tireless Berthier (who had scores of his own to settle with Ponte Corvo) - was energetically seeking boats at Bary, successfully by the next day. Thus, Napoleon had two sizeable bridgeheads over the Elbe by 22 October, while Murat, Soult, and Ney were fast closing on Magdeburg. The only disturbing event was growing indiscipline in the French ranks taking the form of uncontrolled looting.
Indiscipline at all levels notwithstanding, the Grand Armée drove on through Rothenau, Ziesar, and Potsdam (where Napoleon took time off to ponder alone at Frederick the Great’s tomb and ordered the removal of that military monarch’s sword, sash, and Ribbon of the Black Eagle for transfer to the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris). The evening of the twenty-fourth found the French advance cavalry in the suburbs of Berlin, and the next day Napoleon accorded to Davout’s III Corps the honor of marching first into the Prussian capital - to the chagrin of Murat. Thus did Napoleon make amends for his less-than-charitable remark of the late afternoon eleven days earlier by a handsome gesture; he had already made a clear admission of the debt he owed to Davout - later awarded the title of Duc d’Auerstädt (1808) - in the postbattle Fifth Bulletin of the Grand Armée published on the fifteenth, although he did imply that it was all part of a master operational plan! “On our right, Marshal Davout’s Corps performed wonders. Not only did he contain, but he pushed back, and defeated, the bulk of the enemy’s troops, which were to debouch through Kosen. This marshal displayed distinguished bravery and firmness of character - the first qualities in a warrior.”43 And so they remain to the present, not least at the operational level of command.
The continuing pursuit was only briefly interrupted by this and similar ceremonies, for now Napoleon had determined to secure the line of the River Oder and to head off any Russian intervention. The new IX Corps was already near Glogau, and now Davout was moved northeast to secure Küstrin and Frankfurt on der Oder, while Lannes made for Stettin. The remainder of the army - less Ney’s VI Corps carrying out the siege of Magdeburg from 20 October (which would surrender to him on 6 November) - continued northward, allowing the Prussian formations still in the field no rest. Hohenlohe was caught up with at Prenzlau on 28 October and forced to surrender with 10,000 men and 64 guns, impressed by Murat’s bluster and bluff that fully 100,000 French troops were surrounding him. And so it went with a number of other Prussian garrisons.
This left only Blücher’s and the Duke of Weimar’s detachments unaccounted for (22,000 men in all), currently at Schwerin and the Danish port of Lübeck to the northwest. But Bernadotte was hot on their heels, with Soult (laden with loot) a few days behind him. All the Prussians were within the walls of Lübeck on 4 November, still hoping to find shipping for England. The next day, however, Chief of Staff Scharnhorst surrendered with 10,000 men, followed by his commander, Blücher, on the fifth with as many more at the neighboring township of Ratgau. An additional prize was a division of Swedish troops’ belatedly landing. Bernadotte’s courtesy so impressed the nobly born officers that four years later they would suggest their conqueror’s name for the vacant position of Crown Prince of Sweden. (Thus in the long term the “miserable Ponte Corvo” collected the jackpot that eluded all his other comrades and rivals in the
marshalcy - a royal crown.) Next day the surrender of General Kleist with 22,000 men and 600 guns to Ney at Magdeburg 100 miles away virtually ended the formal campaign of 1806, save for the occupation of Hamburg four days later.
Indeed, the whole campaign of 1806 forms a masterly example of Napoleonic operational art in action.
Operational Art and the Campaign of 1806
In summing up Napoleon’s conduct of the campaign of Jena-Auerstädt in 1806 it is necessary to repeat that despite all the achievements - including the reduction of the Prussian Army from a strength of approximately 171,000 originally operating in Saxony to a mere 35,000 (all in a period of thirty-three days) - the immense military victory did not end in immediately commensurate political gains. King Frederick-William III, as we have noted, retired over the River Oder in mid-October with the remnants of his armed forces, there to await Tsar Alexander I’s implementation of Russia’s part of the Fourth Coalition concluded earlier the same month. It is clear that, if left a real choice, the king of Prussia and his ministry would have sought peace without further ado. But that would be to ignore the powerful influence of the “War Party” - even in this hour of cataclysmic defeat - and above all that of its leader, the beautiful Amazonian royal consort, Queen Louise of Prussia. It was not without reason that Napoleon once half-wryly, half-admiringly, referred to her as “the only real man in Prussia.”44 As a result of her influence, reinforced by that of Chief Minister Hardenburg, the patriotic party continued to dominate the Prussian court and government. The direct result of this determination to fight on, together with the tsar’s honorable insistence on honoring his treaty obligations, however dire the present situation, effectively compelled Napoleon to fight three more campaigns - that of November– December 1806 (leading to the occupation of Warsaw), that of January–late February 1807 (which climaxed in the desperate battle of Eylau), and that of early May–mid-June 1807 (including the siege of Danzig, the battles of Heilsberg and, above all, Friedland). Only then was he able - at the Tilsit meetings - to impose, inter alia, a dictated peace on Prussia.
Thus, at the level of strategy and policy, the dramatic and hard-fought campaign of 1806 failed to produce the required political results, at least immediately. It would take the aforementioned additional campaigns to achieve the desired political objectives.
The feature that makes the Napoleonic system of operational art so intriguing is the way it almost automatically allowed for the emperor’s human errors and still made ultimate martial success possible. From the
operational art perspective, there had been a number of serious errors and confusion during the unfolding of this short campaign. Thus, I Corps and III Corps received orders at the start of the operational movements that sent them across each other’s lines of march. A little later Augereau’s VII Corps was left without orders from 7–10 October and failed to keep in touch with V Corps over the same period. Indeed, Napoleon had moved off into the virtually unknown on 8 October, so inadequate had been intelligence coverage, and even those reports that came in hardly clarified the situation - if anything the reverse. Only on the thirteenth did any hard information become available, and even then some of that was misinterpreted. Yet, somehow, the system pulled through.
As has been mentioned earlier in this essay, Napoleon was indubitably guilty of at least six errors of judgment and calculation, as well as “faults of command” during 13 and 14 October alone. These six errors during the critical day preceding battle and that of the battle itself, were (it is easy to discern after the fact), taken in turn, as follows:
It can be argued - admittedly with the benefit of historical hindsight - that any or all of these errors might well have led to disaster for part, or even all, of the Grand Armée. Without a doubt the inadequacies of Prussian comprehension of and reaction to what was taking place were major factors in their own ultimate cataclysm. And yet the robustly adaptable operational system of le bataillon carré that Napoleon developed from the basic building block of the highly flexible all-purpose corps d’armée system enabled him to come through triumphantly (albeit with an immense debt to Davout, but also in spite of Bernadotte’s flagrant indiscipline). As van Creveld says in just summary, “For all these faults in command, Napoleon won what was probably the greatest single triumph in his entire career.”45
We have, it is hoped, shown how the campaign of 1806 demonstrated, “warts and all,” the capabilities of Napoleon’s operational art in its fully developed heyday. Perfect it most certainly was not, but superior to all contemporary equivalents it equally indubitably was. We have examined how Napoleon converted doctrinal conviction into achievable practice. We have seen how he built up a conception of operations, and perfected the necessary instrument for carrying it out at the operational level of warfare. In the French army corps of the period, we have seen how his methods of operational maneuver were extremely flexible and capable of conforming to changing circumstances. Other considerations included the development of operational fires through massed artillery, the use of
all forces and reserves in pursuit, the attempt at intention analysis to see beyond the “veil,” and how “the system of campaign” did indeed reveal “the system of battle.” All went as planned - if not exactly as fought. Such, then, was the state of operational art at its highest development in the days before the development of the “continuous front,” railways, and telegraphic communication. We must surely aver that it was, all in all, impressive to say the very least.46
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